Monday, December 23, 2013


When Robert B. Parker died in 2010, he was survived by several beloved characters and one partially-begun manuscript. The characters have been continued by other authors, in forms good, meh and ugly. The manuscript was finished by Parker's longtime literary agent Helen Brann and was published in October as Silent Night. It's the last novel featuring Parker's mainstay character Spenser that has any of Parker's own work in it.

Christmas is nearing, and Spenser finds himself with an unusual client -- an off-the-books home for street kids that's dedicated to helping them acquire skills they need to get out of their current dangerous situations. Someone is trying to intimidate the center out of its home, and the owner can't go to the police because he's unlicensed. So he's in touch with Spenser, who will seek out the intimidators and explain to them why they should desist from their actions. And by "explain," of course, I mean "threaten, punch, threaten, punch," repeated as necessary. How the center is connected to a wealthy Puerto Rican philanthropist and exactly how a beautiful retired tennis pro connects to the matter will have to be unraveled as he proceeds.

Brann does an immensely better job than Michael Brandman in capturing the characters she's using, quite a bit better than Robert Knott and maybe a little bit worse than Ace Atkins. Part of the reason could be that Atkins writes his own stories with Spenser while Brann is trying to finish one that Parker started. She has a good ear for Parker's dialogue, but it's not perfect and many places show that she is deliberately trying to write with another author's style rather than her own. She also does some things with the cast that Parker would probably not have done, but that may be a matter of opinion.

Parker himself had really just started Night, and had reached the introduction of the center director when he died. He never outlined his novels, so the story direction and character decisions were mostly Brann's ideas. The resulting collaboration betters some of Parker's own lesser work during the late 90's and early 00's, even if it doesn't come very close to his better books. While its main appeal may be as the site of the last of Parker's own words, Silent Night has some merit of its own as well. And if Parker's publisher is going to continue to use zombie versions of his characters to run its printing presses, they at least offer this much.
Irish-born John Connolly was the first author from outside the United States to win the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel, for 2000's Every Dead Thing. He also picked up a Bram Stoker award for Best First Horror Novel, which should tell you that his private eye fiction is just a leetle different from some of the usual product on the shelves.

The Black Angel is the fifth novel in the series that began with Thing, focusing on former NYPD detective Charlie "Bird" Parker, whose cases don't always involve purely natural elements. It seems supernatural forces of several kinds are at work in the world, and for some reason Charlie and his clients are often caught up in their work. In Angel, we start to get a hint of why that might be.

Although he is trying to make a new life for himself with his infant daughter and her mother, Charlie gets pulled back into a case when a young woman important to one of his friends is missing. The case will involve some truly terrifying criminals and supernatural beings who may number among the angels who fell with Lucifer.

Connolly excels as a writer and a storyteller, and uses the events of Angel to highlight the conflict within Charlie's life. He has in mind some commentary and consideration of some important issues in human life, like salvation, redemption, morality and compassion. But those same gifts make the bleakness of that life and sordid details of the crimes almost too vivid. In the end, Charlie Parker novels are probably an acquired taste, and might be best read with a lot of other, lighter-toned and more hopeful books in between them.
"Space opera" is a label given to science fiction that doesn't spend a lot of time on its science except as a backdrop for the story and characters. Think Star Wars. It derives from the older term "horse opera," used about Westerns that followed patterns as familiar as any opera and varied only with the characters inside the story and how they handled the tried-and-true conventions of their genre.

Michael Cobley's "Humanity's Fire" series, begun in 2009 with Seeds of Earth, is space opera in its purest form. Human beings fled Earth when an alien race moved to destroy it, relying on three colony ships that scattered themselves randomly through the galaxy. One of the ships found a habitable world humans named Darien, and they settle there with the cooperation of the native life forms, a sentient species called the Uvovo that has a kind of semi-mystical connection with Darien's ecology.

One day, the political conflicts of the rest of the galaxy catch Darien's little backwater up in their maelstrom, and the colonists find that Earth was not destroyed but rescued by another space nation. Although they seem like benefactors, those other aliens have their own agenda, and what happens to the humans or their adopted world in pursuit of that agenda doesn't concern them much. The humans of Darien, Earth and perhaps the other two lost colony ships need allies to survive, let alone win.

Cobley is a competent stylist who draws good word pictures and creates easily relatable characters. Yes, his aliens act an awful lot like humans and the technology of his universe as uneven as the plot needs it to be, and Seeds is too long, especially as the beginning of a series of equally long books, and too sloppy to be first-class space opera. But it's a good diversion and done well enough not to overly strain the disbelief suspension system.

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